Iraq crisis: Warships and warplanes: the deadly assembly poised to attack

Nicholas von Herberstein reports on the hi-tech armada circling in the Gulf
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COALITION forces are poised to strike at Saddam Hussein. Once again a powerful armada of military hardware is being assembled in the Gulf to reinforce the diplomatic negotiations between Iraq and the United Nations.

It is a huge and deadly assembly. The United States Navy air wings alone are capable of delivering just under 10 million pounds of bombs and missiles. The fleet itself has 600 vertical-launch system cells available, all of which can fire Tomahawk Cruise missiles. Yet the forces that are assembled are only a fraction of the the total that were involved during the 1990- 1991 Gulf War.

In 1991, the coalition had 1,200 strike aircraft, 90 warships, six aircraft carriers, approximately 500,000 land forces and 2,500 tanks. This time, it is a much smaller force - about a third of the aircraft and ships, and a far smaller land component. On the one hand there are virtually no ground forces assembled, because this time the intention is to deliver an air attack, not a land invasion; on the other, Saudi Arabia has, to date, not given its support to the US and no operations will be conducted from Saudi soil.

British forces are of enormous political significance, yet militarily they are but a small component of the much larger group. Britain has at present the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, with eight Sea Harriers and seven RAF Harriers, who are supported by the frigate HMS Coventry, the destroyer HMS Nottingham, and the supply ships RFA Bayleaf and Fort Victoria. Further British personnel are in Kuwait, with eight Tornado GR1 and their support crews. Two VC-10 tankers and a company of Royal Engineers complete the British force.

America has the largest military contingent by far in the Gulf, with 15,000 navy and 7,100 airforce personnel. The combined forces present a very powerful and capable force with two carrier groups, part of the US 5th Fleet.

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington and the USS Independence boast 103 strike aircraft comprised of F-14s , F18s and EA-6B aircraft. According to a US Navy statement, a carrier airwing typically includes 4,600,000 pounds of air-launched missiles, laser-guided bombs, general purpose bombs and other ammunition.

Added to the carrier groups, there are two cruisers and four destroyers that are Tomahawk-capable. Two guided missile frigates and attack submarines complete the immediate offensive package available to the US Navy.

En route to the Gulf are an additional 4,000 Special Operations Marines from the 11th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Unitswho are reinforced by a complement of AV-8B harriers, Super Cobra Attack helicopters and other support helicopters. The US Navy also has an elite US Navy Seal team and other military diving units in the Gulf.

The US Airforce has approximately 250 aircraft in units stationed around the region which are comprised of F117 Stealth planes, B-52 and B1 bombers, as well as an undisclosed complement of F-15 and F16 strike planes

Washington has had problems bringing political support to bear. But the US and Britain do not stand alone, and other allies have offered their support. The Australian prime minister, John Howard, announced yesterday that he would send 250 personnel, including 110 Special Air Service commandos, for Search and Rescue operations to support the US: "If it does become necessary for a United States-led coalition to use force, then Australia has decided it will make a contribution to that effort," he said. And Jean Chretien, the Canadian prime minister, said that Canada was sending a frigate, two Hercules transport aircraft and 300 to 400 troops to the Gulf.

Several Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia being the notable exception, have given political support to the coalition forces as well as providing logistical support by making air-bases and infrastructure available.

The Americans have pre-positioned stores of supplies and munitions in the Gulf state of Oman. Muscat has told William Cohen, the US Secretary of Defense, that the US would be welcome to station 23 support aircraft on its territories. Five of those planes are KC-10 refuelling tankers. Six B-52 bombers will be based on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and the refuelling facility will help them carry out long-range operations.

The lack of ground forces underlines that this will be an operation with limited objectives: we are not about to see a rerun of 1991. But to reassure its allies, the US has some ground troops in the region. Kuwait has an additional US military unit: a battalion task force of the 3rd Brigade, a 3rd Infantry division is currently on Operation Intrinsic Action with air defence, as well as its usual infantry, mechanised infantry and reconnaissance capabilities. The 3rd Infantry Division earned its fame in the Gulf War when it spear-headed the US 7th Corps attack against the Iraqi Republican Guard.